As far back as I can remember, my mind has always thought and learned by association. My brain fancifully connects things like computer terminals and bus terminals, Indian reservations with plane ticket confirmations, and carpetbaggers with rug stealers. Don’t ask me why, but I think I get bored with ordinary human communications and then lapse into my imaginary fantasy’ association world, finding it much more fascinating than the nightly news, soap operas and talking head yakety-yak cable tabloid shows.
Because my cerebrum delights in working by making bizarre associations, whenever my mind thinks of Charles Dickens, the great English author is filed and classified in a “mental cabinet” along with James Thurber, Hans Christian Andersen, Jack London and the mythical ancient Greek hero, Perseus. All of these personages had to overcome trials, tribulations and adversity. They elevated themselves above grief and ridicule, stayed focused on their goals and were not defeated by an abundance of criticism and rejection. They were motivated by failure.
Charles Dickens’ (1812-1970) father had great financial difficulties. The boy had a rather miserable childhood, and the lad spent much of his time in poorhouses and workhouses. Did poverty overwhelm Charles Dickens? Was his negative environment to blame for an unproductive and fruitless life? No it wasn’t. Dickens retreated into his imaginary world and incisively wrote about the need for social reform in what later became such literary classics such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
James Thurber (1894-1961) ranks as one of America’s most popular humorists. He is most renowned for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a meek, absent-minded hen-pecked’ character who suffers the sharp-tongued ire of a dominant bossy wife. Thurber’s stories and self-drawn cartoons appeared for over thirty years in the New Yorker magazine. James Thurber had been blinded in one eye in a childhood accident, and then he lost vision in his other eye in later life. Despite those hardships, the author still continued his storytelling pursuits and even appeared late in life as himself in a popular Broadway play The Thurber Carnival.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was born in a small fishing village in Denmark. (If a last name ends in sen, the person is probably from Denmark; in son, probably from Sweden). At age fourteen Andersen journeyed to Copenhagen to pursue either an acting or writing career. He auditioned as an opera singer, was a humiliating failure and spent the next three years anguishing in abject poverty. His first plays and novels received little acclaim. Was Hans Christian Andersen defeated by rejection? If he had been, poor Hans Christian would have remained in obscurity, his work undiscovered, his reputation hiding in the giant anonymous void history calls “the masses.”
Jack London (1876-1916) has to be one of my favorite authors in American literature. He certainly is a source of inspiration whenever I feel depressed. London was born into grim poverty, had little formal education, and was heading toward a criminal life. As a teenager he was an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay and spent several years roaming the city as a hobo. But Jack London loved going to the library and reading books, so much so that he endured what he had possibly hated most, formal education and became a “student of life.” London managed to finish high school and then eventually enrolled into the University of California.
I admire men such as Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Hans Christian Andersen and Jack London. I find inspiration in considering that each great author was not overcome by formidable negative social and economic’ environments. Each man elevated himself above mediocrity through determination and tenacity. Failures and handicaps made them tougher, more resilient. They didn’t blame society for the bad cards they had been dealt. These great authors were motivated at being shunned by the literary establishment.
They refused to be mere products of their environments. Instead, they transcended adversity by having faith in themselves and subsequently shaping their environments.
Now, how do I associate the mythical Greek hero Perseus with Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Hans Christian Andersen and Jack London? Perseus had to overcome many obstacles in his pursuit of honor and glory. Kings and noblemen rejected his ambition. The hero was about to surrender to failure when the goddess Pallas Athene appeared to him and asked, “Perseus, which would you prefer to have, a soul of clay or a soul of fire?” Obviously, Perseus answered a “soul of fire.”
This is what Perseus has in common with Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Hans Christian Andersen and Jack London. Success wasn’t given to them; they earned it by overcoming challenges that obstructed their achievements. They all realized how ephemeral human existence is and that every second counts. They made the most of their lives by seizing opportunity the moment it came their way, and when it didn’t come their way, their industry and their inner strength compelled them to create opportunity. The five would not accept “no” for an answer from anyone. Those great “heroes” transcended the sarcasm, the banality and the castigation that surrounded them. They refused to go through life satisfied being sheepish men having souls of clay. The five champions of literature aptly demonstrated to the cynical world that they possessed “souls of fire.”
January 24, 2002
Copyright: The Hammonton (New Jersey) Gazette
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